Avon Grove Taxpayers for Responsible Spending


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League of Women Voters’ School Board Debate
May 11, 2019

The League of Women Voter’ sponsored a debate that featured the candidates running for the Avon Grove School Board (AGSB).  Candidates include Mr Charles Beatty (current school board member, Region I) who is being challenged by Ms Dorothy Linn;   Mr Jeff Billig and Ms Tracy Lisi (current school boards members in Region II) who are being challenged by Mr Mark Stewart and Ms Carmela Ciliberti; and Ms Bonnie Wolff and Mr Herman Engel (current school board directors in Region III) who are being challenged by Ms Christina Fanning. All the candidates participated in the debate except for Ms Bonnie Wolff and Mr Mark Stewart.

The debate started with each candidate giving an opening statement. 

  • Dorothy Linn is a former superintendent for the Colonial School District in Delaware.  She has experience with oversight including finances.  Her grandchildren and children have attended the AG schools.  She currently serves on the Avon Grove Education Foundation. She supports what the current administration and SB have in place.

  •  Charles Beatty has served 8 years on the SB.  He has worked in construction for 40 years where he progressed to owning his own company. Realistic budgeting, strong project management and time management were keys to the success of his business.  Mr Beatty has worked to ensure that these capabilities are being practiced by the current school administration and board particularly for the facilities project.  His focus is on pragmatic solutions that work for the students and the community.

  • Traci Lisi has lived in West Grove since 2005 and has been a volunteer in the AG schools.  This is her 4th year on the SB and 2nd year as its President.  She is proud that during her tenure on the board Full Day Kindergarten (FDK) has been instituted, safety improvements have been made to the schools, 9th grade sports have been reinstituted, and the teachers’ contract has been successfully negotiated.

  • Jeff Billig has been on the school board since 2015.  He doesn’t believe that money for public schools should ever be cut.  He believes this election is about truth with a key truth being that AG schools have above average performance that is being delivered with below average spending per pupil.  He said, “If you like what you see, you should vote for him.”

  • Carmella Ciliberti is a graduate of AG High School.  She has been involved with aviation training for over 20 years.  She is currently pursuing her law degree at Villanova University.  She is passionate about education as well as the financial welfare of the community.

  • Herman Engel has been on the school board for 9 years.  He has been a teacher for 27 years; his wife is a teacher in AG.  Both his son and daughter went to AG high school.  He is proud of opening the track for public use, FDK, and the 1:1 initiative for computers.  He is seeking re-election to finish work on the facilities project (new high school and renovated middle school).

  • Christina Fanning has 2 daughters one of which recently graduated from AG high school. Her focus is on the teachers and making sure they have the resources necessary to do their jobs.  She believes that her experience as a Global Account Manager for a large scientific company will help her be a constructive new voice on the school board that brings people together by using her creative thinking and negotiation skills.

Each candidate was then asked the following questions:

1.  Is PA funding education appropriately?

  • Mr Beatty – believes that the current system is antiquated; residents are losing their houses because they can’t afford school taxes.  He supports per student payment by the government to the schools and not the use of a complicated formula to determine the amount.
  • Ms Lisi - the current system is “directionally correct”.  We need to continue to talk with the PA legislature.
  • Mr Billig - funding of teacher pensions puts an enormous burden on the school district.  The state government needs to deal with the issue now.  He understands the issue with taxing seniors but stated that we are unable to change the taxing mechanism.
  • Ms Ciliberti - the current system is broken.  Funds need to be managed locally.  The school board needs to be fiscally conservative when deciding how best to spend tax dollars.
  • Mr Engel - Unfunded mandates are a problem.  Requiring the school board to finalize its budget before the state finalize sits budget, makes the budgeting process even more difficult.
  • Ms Fanning - the key is for the school board to prioritize what you want to spend the money on.
  • Ms Linn - 30% of funding is from the state.  She believes the SB is already being conservative with the way they spend tax money.

 2.  Do you support a new high school?

  • Ms Lisi – yes.  She doesn’t believe renovation is a reasonable option.
  • Mr Billig – absolutely supports the building of a new high school.
  • Ms Ciliberti – wants to relook at the cost to renovate and expand the current high school.  We need the best option for the students and the community.  Wants to fully use existing buildings; the greenest building is the one you don’t have to build.
  • Mr Engel – fully supports the building of a new high school.  He does not want to rely on temporary classrooms.
  • Ms Fanning – supports building a new high school but want to deliver what the community can afford.
  • Ms Linn – supports a new high school.  She has been involved with the building of a new school and was able to keep the project within budget.
  • Mr Beatty – supports the new facilities but views the cost of the new high school as excessive.  He commented that the current design being evaluated is $5million over budget. He did support the renovation option and would have liked it to be further developed.

3.  Outside of new facilities, what are the needs for the elementary and middle schools?

  • Mr Billig – he would like to see an integrated plan as students move from the elementary schools to the middle school to high school.  Such a strategy was not available until Superintendent Marchese came to the district.
  • Ms Ciliberti – questioned whether the current plan referenced by Mr Billig was providing a good result based on the condition of the current facilities, e.g. high school roof, bathrooms.  Her focus would be on the teachers and making sure they had the resources to succeed.
  • Mr Engel – the lack of space in the middle school needs to be addressed so that students can work in small groups.  He would like to see less technology in the elementary schools so that students can learn to work together.
  • Ms Fanning – questioned if $22million will be enough to renovate the high school to a middle school.  Do we need to re-examine the amount of money being spent on the new high school?
  • Ms Linn – supports social/emotional learning from K to grade 12.  The schools need innovative programming including STEM.  Teachers need to be supported via professional development.
  • Mr Beatty – Elementary school facilities are in good shape.  The middle school recently had a $12 million renovation.  The curriculum is up to date and there is no lack of technology. 
  • Ms Lisi – supports social and emotional learning.  She believes there is a link across the schools based on the strategy implemented by Superintendent Marchese.

4.  Do you support enrichment programs for adults being held at the school facilities?

     All the candidates supported allowing the community to access enrichment programs at the school facilities.

 5.  How can School bus safety be improved?

  • Mr Engel – there are video cameras inside the school buses.  The community can also help by reporting cars that break the law and pass school buses while they are picking up or letting off students.
  • Ms Fanning – strongly supported the installation of cameras outside of the school buses to help identify cars that are illegally passing school buses.  Bus safety is an important priority and these cameras should be installed as soon as possible.
  • Ms Linn – stated that we need support our bus drivers who have a very difficult job.  The cameras on the inside of the school buses are very effective and help with discipline.  Parents should report cars illegally passing school buses to the transportation department at the school.
  • Mr Beatty – supports that video cameras should be installed outside of the buses to identify cars disobeying the traffic laws.
  • Ms Lisi – supports cameras being inside and outside of the bus; mistakenly thought that cameras were already installed outside of the bus. Also stressed the need to have an adequate number of aides on the buses.
  •  Mr Billig – supports cameras on the bus.  He also stated that the recent purchase of new software to update the bus routes will improve student bus safety.
  • Ms Ciliberti – strongly supports the addition of cameras outside of the school buses in addition to the cameras in the school buses. She wonders why these cameras have not already been purchased and installed.

 6.  Do you support a Community Health Center as part of the new High School?

  • Ms Fanning – no.  We need to prioritize our resources and a Community Health Center is not at the top of the list. 
  • Ms Linn – yes.  She believes it would be an important outreach to the community and that it would also benefit students.
  • Mr Beatty – no. The current school design is already over budget without allowing for a Community Health Center.  We can’t risk losing the items we need for the new facilities in order to secure a nice to have.
  • Ms Lisi – while she supports a Community Health Center in the new high school, she believes it is not a feasible option at this time.
  • Mr Billig – no.  Building a Community Health Center would come at the expense of student education.
  • Ms Ciliberti – no. This is not where school resources should be focused.
  • Mr Engel – while he agrees with the idea of a Community Health Center, he is concerned that it will take away from the education of the students.

 7.  What should be changed in the AG School District?

  • Ms Linn – expand social and emotional learning at the schools. 
  • Mr Beatty – continue to improve teacher and student interactions by implementing and updating Best Practices.
  • Ms Lisi – wants to better prepare students for post-secondary opportunities.
  • Mr Billig – strongly supports what Superintendent Marchese has accomplished for the school district.  Would like to see communication with the community improved further.  He suggests having printed material available for Seniors.
  • Ms Ciliberti – would like to see a focus on education to improve outcomes.
  • Mr Engel – is open to the availability of relevant languages to the students, e.g. mandarin.
  • Ms Fanning – would like to see more support for the teachers; they shouldn’t have to pay for needed school supplies.  She would also like to see a greater focus on mental health and planning for post secondary education.

8.  Is there a role for political party affiliation in the school board?

    All candidates acknowledged that political party affiliation is part of the election process.  You need to declare a party in order to get        your name on the ballot. However, politics should not be part of school board deliberations.  The focus should be on what is best for        the students and the community.

9.  What is the impact of the Charter school on the school district?

  • Ms Lisi - the Charter School is a personal choice.  However, AGSD does pay tuition to the charter school ($11 million) that is greater than 10% of the school budget.
  • Mr Billig – agrees with Ms Lisi’s response.  The financial impact of the charter school on the AGS budget is significant and would even be greater without FDK.
  • Ms Ciliberti – supports the charter schools.  There is no need to avoid the charter schools; they provide a valuable service to the community.
  • Mr Engel – it would be better if money spent on the charter schools was directed back to the school district.
  • Ms Fanning – believes parents should have a choice on where to send their children.  Charter schools offer an important option.
  • Ms Linn – believes that parents should have a choice.
  • Mr Beatty – is proud of the charter schools.  He believes they deliver a large benefit to students in the school district.

10.  How will you deal with the stress associated with the school board?

  • Mr Billig – activities associated with the school board require 40-60 hrs/month of his time.  He believes he is successfully dealing with the stress.  It is important that the school board members should listen to the experts the administration identify.  These experts have the best solution.
  • Ms Ciliberti – stated that stress is part of life.  She completed a 4 year degree while working full time. Good time management is key.
  • Mr Engel – time management and good organizational skills are important, particularly when you are working full time. Support of your family is essential.
  • Ms Fanning – no problem handling stress.  She was able to deal with her husband, a marine, being deployed several times while they had a young family.
  • Ms Linn – a key to dealing with stress is taking care of yourself through time management and family support.
  • Mr Beatty – as a former business owner involved in construction, Mr Beatty is familiar with stress.  Projects need to be on time and on budget.  He brings the skills he used to mange stress while a business owner to the school board.
  • Ms Lisi - activities associated with the school board require 50-60 hrs/month of her time. She believes time management is important.  She doesn’t allow herself to be overwhelmed.  She stays open-minded.

 In summary, the debate was an excellent opportunity to meet the candidates for the school board.  If you are happy with the way the school administration and school board are spending your tax dollars you should consider supporting the current school board members in Region II (Lisi and Billig) and III (Wolff and Engel).  They, along with the Ms Linn in Region I, believe the current school board is doing an excellent job and should continue with what they are doing.  Mr Billig commented several times on the excellent job Superintendent Marchese is doing in leading the school district.  Ms Linn, a former school superintendent, seems to be of the same mind as these incumbents. In addition, she was the one person at the debate who was in favor of establishing a Community Health Center in the new high school.

But if you are concerned with how the current school administration and school board are allocating your tax dollars and their corresponding need to increase your school taxes year after year, you should consider supporting the challengers in Region II (Ciliberti and Stewart)  and  Region III ( Fanning) and the incumbent in Region I (Beatty).  Together, they may be able to offer new voices to the board that will provide a different perspective on how to support our teachers in their important role of delivering high quality education to our students.